Hiking with… Pack Goats!

I haven’t been backpacking in ages. In fact, it’s likely that been avoiding since the last time I went backpacking for fun. That was ten years ago, when friend and I did a great 14-mile loop at the Porkies but ended up doing the entire thing in one day, instead of the two that we had planned, which meant that we’d schlepped our packs filled with overnight gear that entire distance for nothing.

I was excited to try backpacking again, especially when my friend, Sara, proposed trying out pack goats.

The plan was to meet up about 1 pm in Bruce Crossing, and then head out to a segment of the North Country Trail. We planned to do a short loop, since we both had to be home reasonably early the next day and had no idea what to expect from the goats.

I screwed up almost immediately. About 20 minutes into driving, I realized that I’d left the maps at home. But, perhaps fortunately, I’d also gotten confused about when I needed to leave home in order to make our meet-up time, originally leaving home an hour earlier than I should have. So even though I had to backtrack for the maps, it all worked out.

Sara and I met up at the gas station, and she introduced me to the two goats that she brought: Squirt and Gala. She’d brought her milking goats instead of her original plans to bring two males. The bigger male, Woody, would have made a better pack goat because of his size, but was extra smelly and extra ornery since he was in rut. It didn’t much matter to me, although I had been looking forward to being able to holler “Woody, you horny old goat!” during our hike.

Gala (left, with horns) and Squirt: our backpacking buddies for the trip.
Gala (left, with horns) and Squirt: our backpacking buddies for the trip.

I jumped in her truck and we drove another half hour to the trailhead.

When we got there, Sara put the pack on Squirt, the older mama goat. We only had one goat pack for the trip, although Sara has a second one in the works. I’d half-joked that we should put a doggie backpack on the other one for fun, but Sara couldn’t find ones of those.

Squirt saddles up.
Squirt saddles up.

I was surprised at how much the set up was like panniers on my bike. A wood saddle went on top of a thick felt pad, and then bags hung off of each side of the saddle. The bags were a bit big for Squirt and hung lower would have been ideal, but they weren’t full—she carried a light load of hammocks, tarps, and a few other items. Sara and I had backpacks as well, although a bit smaller than if we’d have had to carry everything ourselves.

We started, and it was shockingly uneventful. Mostly it was like walking with two dogs on leashes, except that one dog had a comically large set of saddlebags and the other had horns.

It was slow going. The goats seemed to prefer a slow amble, made even slower by their constant browsing. They’d gobble up leaves and twigs from just about anything as they walked along, slowing occasionally to take in even more vegetation. And Squirt seemed to pause at the top and bottom of every hill, stating a preference to stay put in order to continue eating, rather than see what was beyond the next hill.

It took us 50 minutes to go the first mile.

Sara and Squirt on the trail.
Sara and Squirt on the trail.

It was a nice day, although hot and humid. I was grateful that the bugs weren’t bad; at our slow pace, any more mosquitos would have been unbearable in the moist drainages. It was nice to be out in the woods, and there were some great views of expansive forests.

About a mile and a half in, we found a good place to set up camp for the evening. The piney forest was the edge of a bluff, catching some of the afternoon breeze, and was pretty close to a creek for getting water for us and the goats. We stretched up our hammocks and made camp. Then, we tied up the goats, and continued to hike.

Packing light: hammocks instead of a tent.
Packing light: hammocks instead of a tent.

We hiked another 4 miles or so. We checked out the old Norwich Mine area, and were stunned at the activity that had taken place 150 years ago. Even knowing that most of the U.P. was cleared of its forest, it’s hard to believe the amount of mining, farming, and other activities that took place in what are (and probably were then too) the most remote of places.

We also sat around and enjoyed some great views.

Next time, I'm camping here.
Next time, I’m camping here.

When we returned to the campsite, Sara milked the goats and I wrote. Sitting on a large rock covered in moss, leaves and debris, I realized that I was immediately next to—almost on top of—a mouse den. I watched a few of its inhabitants come and go from their house, right past me, to other parts of the forest.

We went to bed at dark. Or rather, Sara and I went to our hammocks and slept for the most part. The goats seemed to stay up all night, standing about 10 feet behind me and browsing. At one point, I looked up at them while wearing my headlamp, and their eyes reflected back at me like some ungulate version of Children of the Corn.

Whenever I’d wake up, which seems to be every hour or two when camping, I’d hear them moving around in the brush. At one point in the night, I was vaguely aware that they were nearby and awake. Then, I heard the tink of a hoof hitting the metal water bottle I’d set on the ground next to my hammock. I looked over to see Gala peering into my hammock, her face only about a foot from mine.

My watchgoat for the night.
My watchgoat for the night.

As it just started to get light out, I woke the the distant sound of thunder and tried to determine whether it was something I should be concerned about. It went away for a while, but then came back and seemed a bit closer. There was a small flash in the sky, and I was up immediately. We packed up the entire camp in a few minutes, and set off on the trail to get back to the truck. As soon as we left the campsite, it started to rain.

It rained, generally heavily, the entire way back. We were faster on the return, but still slow—it took us nearly an hour to go a mile and a half. Although I was probably a little peeved with the goats’ natural ambling pace, it mostly didn’t matter. We didn’t have rain gear, and it was inevitable that we’d be soaked the entire time, but the weather was warm enough (and the storm mild enough—we never saw lightning and the thunder was far away) that it didn’t pose any danger.

It stopped raining, of course, at the same time we hit the trailhead.

Views like this one made me want to do more backpacking.
Views like this one made me want to do more backpacking.

On the way back to my car, I leafed through the copy of The Pack Goat that Sara had brought to show me. Although I’m a bit more ambivalent about pack goats than Sara (after all, if I leave for a night of backpacking, our lack of livestock means that I don’t need to find someone to milk my goats), I also liked the images of friendly goats, carrying their baggage across scenic vistas.

The entire trip made me want to do more backpacking. And, if it worked out, I’d go with goats again.

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